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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Americanus ex machina

Last night I watched the Granada Television version of A Scandal in Bohemia, one of the early Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. I've been a Conan Doyle fan since I was a kid and I thought this first of the Granada Holmes productions was the best screen adaptation I've seen of the Sherlock Holmes legend.

The original story was published in 1891, and watching it last night reminded me of something I noticed a long time ago: when the plot required something extraordinary to happen, British Victorian writers, maybe instinctively, often conjured up an American to get the job done. Irene Adler, an American adventuress, is Sherlock Holmes' antagonist in A Scandal in Bohemia. And this chick from New Jersey takes Holmes to school. If memory serves, she is one of the very few (if not the only) antagonist that ever completely defeats Sherlock Holmes.

Also as a teenager, I read Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and loved it. (I was continually disappointed with screen adaptations of the Dracula story until Coppola's movie came out in 1992.) Again we see this odd literary phenomenon: at the height of the British Empire a platoon of Englishmen is desperately battling Dracula and his minions; their lives, their women, their very souls on the line; there are only seconds to go before the sun sets and all is lost. And a mortally wounded Texan staggers back into the fight, and with his dying breath and his trusty Bowie knife finally puts paid to the evil vampire. No wonder Dracula stuck around Europe for centuries, sucking blood and generally causing trouble; you Brits and Continentals had the wrong guys on the job. Y'all want a tough problem solved, y'all need to get yourselves an American. Preferably from Texas. (It occurs to me this theme is not limited to the last century, nor to fiction.)

According to Wikipedia, the "Latin phrase deus ex machina comes to English usage from Horace's Ars Poetica, where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots." It's disappointing for the audience to have a character in a story saved at the last second by some sort of miracle out of nowhere. We feel cheated when such things happen. We expect the heroes of page and screen to solve their own problems. We do not want them to need the "god from the machine" to be lowered to the stage to take care of all the hard things for them.

It's interesting that foreign writers (at least British ones) use American characters in almost exactly such a way. Americanus ex machina? Who can out-think Sherlock Holmes? Who can kill the undead? Who can slip some cash to James Bond when he gets wiped out at the gaming table, or parachute 20 frogmen into the water on short notice when Bond finally finds the stolen nuke? One can almost see the author pulling at his hair, or the screenwriters staring blankly at the deadend on the story board:
Now what are we going to do? How do we work our story out of the corner we just wrote ourselves into? Quick, write an American into the story! They can do anything!
When you - absolutely, positively - need some ass kicked in a hurry, who you gonna call?

For all the condescension we get as Americans in the fashionable circles of international opinion, the occasional glimpse of the fantasy life of the non-American is gratifying. Even as the world loves to disparage us, the secret sometimes bubbles up into view in popular fiction. The world has long viewed the American as that missing je ne sais quoi that's required to set right what otherwise cannot be fixed.

We Americans of course know better. We can't always do all of that magic stuff (only sometimes) but it's nice to know that deep down inside, the rest of the world figures that when the impossible needs doing, it's good to have Americans around.

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